by Derek Morrison
The cows were the first;
They no longer appear
Living their lives in mega-sheds
Throughout each passing year.
Now hidden from casual view
Lush fields they never see
For algorithms and robots
Had replaced green-grassy lea.
With auto feed and milking
Every need was satisfied
No stress, strain, or disease
Was the corporate line then plied.
Heritage farmers were the next
Like the dodo they were gone
Such heroes found no way to profit
From this new industrial dawn.
Or their sons and daughters
Knowing realities of this life
Sought outlets for their talents
That didn’t require such strife.
But some found their land
Attracting most hungry eyes
For siting these new mega-sheds
Or enabling more housing rise.
Strange towers also emerged
Far from old country farms
Cities’ new silent labs and mills
Devoid of bucolic charms.
For fruit and veg went vertical
In these factories of the sky
Shining many artificial suns
On shoots that never dry.
Rural dwellers felt this change
Disrupting once bucolic bliss
From concrete and mega-sheds
Or embraced by cities’ kiss.
For the creeping crab of conurbation
Brought a world that viewed such space
As now inefficient and unproductive
Which new technologies could replace.
So their creeping crab of automation
Consumed old roles by the score
So migrant workers became history
They were not needed any more.
These new machines had intelligence
And they never – ever – tired
Testing beast and soil with sensors
Prescribing treatments, if required.
Masters of ‘Precision Agriculture’
Controlled this world by screen
Fed data from drones and satellites
With few humans to be seen.
Now megalopolis and the country
Eventually merged into seamless one
Broken only by new ‘parks‘
For citizens to have their fun.
Some larger ‘parks’ had zoos
Displaying now uncommon beasts
So they gaze on the sheep and cattle
Still forced participants in their feasts.
But these people were the last;
For they no longer appear
Now preferring lives in virtual space
Where cows can still graze all year.
A remorseless transformation
As the old rural world died
Pressed to Man’s new purpose
As Nature silently cried.
[To listen to this verse select below]
I have always loved walking the British countryside but I am now old enough to reflect on both the changes that have already taken place and on those yet to come.
In A Walk in the Country I offer one rather dystopian possible-future, albeit informed by the changes that have already taken place in my lifetime. In this version of the future the animals once commonly found in fields will either be in automated barns or mega-sheds, or in national parks, or – and – in zoos. Heritage farmers will be gone, to be replaced by conglomerate managers of industrialised agri-estates. Cities will have expanded as housing developers take over released farms, so that the norm becomes a world of the conurbated city interspersed with ‘parks’. Diversity of flora and fauna decreases with many now extinct as their habitat disappears or become super-managed monocultures. A few hill farms still exist but those are run by rich hobbyists or last stand hold-outs for the older way of life.
So is this dystopian view too pessimistic? Perhaps not. The farms around my locality appear to be being run by very few people indeed and the farmers are not typically in first flush of youth – or their children intend to eschew farming as a way of life. Even the current generation of agricultural machinery and technology now means that tasks once requiring many people and much time to complete can now be undertaken by one person in a fraction of the time. It’s fair to assume therefore that this reality will continue in its remorseless progress.
Carried to its ultimate conclusion, what technology will make possible may eventually fatally undermine the current generation of farms and farmers – and so the countryside as we know it. Small to medium size farms particularly those sited near to existing cities and conurbations are protected to some degree by the UK’s green belt policy; but this principle is coming under increasing pressure from either political or commercial interests. Even without such pressure such farmers feel the impact upon their working environments just from the increasing proximity of town and cities, e.g. dogs, crime, security of gates etc. To that add any detrimental changes resulting from Brexit, e.g. loss or redistribution of subsidies, and for some that may prove the final straw.
This is a world where what I called the ‘creeping crab of conurbation’ amplifies the effect of the ‘creeping crab of automation’ to bring forth changes once viewed as the province of science fiction. What could then emerge may well be a different type of farming which puts efficiency and productivity beyond all other considerations – particularly sentiment and tradition. From that perspective, the corporately-owned, fully automated, environment controlled ‘mega-farms’ driven by AI technologies of this verse may not be so far fetched. For example, perhaps Climate Corporation’s FieldView system or the projects of MIT Media Lab’s Open Agriculture Initiative offer a glimpse of what’s to come. A world of monitoring via sensors, analysing data, viewing and spraying via drones, with work done by GPS fed self-driving robot seeders, feeders, weeders pickers, and sprayers. A world where GM seeds and crops has become the norm with some not even grown in fields but in tall buildings on, say, industrial estates, where growing plants are bathed by artificial lights and are fed by automated hydroponic soil-less systems. A world where Silicon Valley and its algorithms have now penetrated into all of civilisation’s cells and so has a presence in every facet of all systems, even the food we eat, and in what the town and the country finally becomes.
Open Agriculture Initiative (MIT Media Lab)